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‘Fitness Buddies’ a good workout for those with special needs

Coach J.R. Golen teaching Charlie Kehoe and Vincent Pirro how to stretch before working out for Fitness Buddies.

Coach J.R. Golen teaching Charlie Kehoe and Vincent Pirro how to stretch before working out for Fitness Buddies.

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – The Springfield Jewish Community Center has launched “Fitness Buddies,” a new program designed to teach individuals with special needs how to use the JCC’s fitness center — with the help of volunteer “fitness buddies” from the larger community.

The program is made possible through a $13,000 grant from the Doug Flutie Foundation for Autism.

Fitness Buddies is a program of Kehillah, the Springfield JCC’s special needs department, run by director Linda LaPointe, who oversees Fitness Buddies. Two fitness trainers – J.R. Golen and Patty Kelly – work with the participants. Besides being fitness trainers both also have adapted physical education certification: certification in overseeing physical education instructional programs for people with special needs.

“They are used to working with individuals with different abilities,” LaPointe explained.

Since the summer 16 teens and young adults with special needs have been working with the two trainers to learn how to use the JCC’s fitness center. The youngest participant is 16 and the oldest is 32.

“They get a JCC ID and a lanyard, and we teach them how to use various pieces of equipment, how to use free weights. We take them up to the cycling or spinning room and teach them how to do a spinning class,” LaPointe said. “We teach them how to use the fitness center in all aspects – how to check in and the social pragmatics of using the center.”

LaPointe said that the fitness buddies with special needs have to have an interest in fitness, and also must have the ability to follow directions and be socially appropriate.

Once they have learned the basics in terms of how to use the fitness center, the participants will be matched with their fitness buddies.

“When they get to the point where they understand how to use the fitness center, then we match them up with somebody from the community based on their interests and the person from the community’s interests,” LaPointe said. “So, for example, we have a guy who is really into weight training so we are matching him up with a college student who is really into weight training also.”

The Fitness Buddies will meet twice a week to work out together.

The volunteer “Fitness Buddies” – aged high school seniors or above — received a small amount of training, mostly learning how to aid their buddies and how to re-direct any unwanted behavior, LaPointe said.

“The individual with special needs gets to have a friend that they work out with – and it is good for them health-wise and good for them independence-wise,” she said. “Learning how to manage any community center is a good thing. And no matter where they move to in their lives they will always have this skill set where they can go and use a fitness center.”

Plans are for the Fitness Buddies to begin working out together by January. For a year, from the time they begin, the participants get a free membership to work out twice a week. The Fitness Buddies can also work out twice a week for free.

At the end of the year, they can apply to the JCC for their own membership at a discounted rate.

“So far the program is going really well and the kids who are in it are really enjoying it,” LaPointe said. “Our goal is to put more and more people through the program.”

For those who are not ready to work out with buddies, LaPointe said, there are fitness groups at the JCC where they can exercise for 8-week sessions before they are ready to join Fitness Buddies.

“We’re hoping that not only can we get it down to a science, and really figure out how we can move people through quicker and with the same level of success, but we also are hoping we will be able to create something that can be carried over into other JCCs,” she said.

“It meets so many goals — the goal of friendship, the goal of fitness, the goal of inclusion within the community, and also awareness and acceptance for everybody who sees these two guys or girls working out together and being successful and not bothering anybody and just seeing that they are there working out just like they are.”

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